Listen ! The wind is arising, and the air is wild with leaves. We have had our summer evenings, now for October eves ! (H. Wolfe)

This time a week ago I was delivering the final ‘coup de grass,  the mower seemed a little put about at being asked to pop out of hibernation to perform once more – indeed I had to cajole it by putting the spark plug in the oven for a short while, tlc and a warm cwtch always wins the day !  Then, suddenly, imperceptibly, I find myself in darkness before I’ve got back home.  Half term week, the last week of October, is when we would normally expect the weather to change for the worse.  It is no coincidence that this time of the month marks sad anniversaries. Aberfan came about on Friday 21st October, the collapse of the railway bridge at Glanrhyd, some hundreds of yards from my then home, was the same week, both the result of intense and sustained rainfall.  We have been spared that thus far although a shock to the system – after warm sunshine 10 days ago – was a deluge of hard hitting hail stones, that precipitated (no pun intended) a change to warmer clothing and the nightly saga of lighting the wood burning stove.

Misty morning

October brings the early morning mists in the valley, already the first frosts have descended.

The main change that inevitably occurs during this last week of October is a rising wind speed and associated chill factor.  Unfortunately for me I have been working on a rather exposed south facing slope where the strong westerlies, or indeed the easterlies later on, just smack me straight in the face, raw red eyes and a sheepdog wet, cold nose is unavoidable.

Morning mist over Edwinsford

The early mist soon got blown away, the Edwinsford Deer Park is a windy place.

In the long ago twentieth century, I think in about 1995, I was asked to go and look at a walling job on a farm near the village of Llansawel, north of Llandeilo, and a few miles north of my old fishing lake at Talley.

The job was to repair collapsed sections of an old, very tall, boundary wall between the farm and the (by then) disused quarry called Dinas.  Therein lay the clue.  Dinas is a common place name throughout Wales and in some other western parts of England.  It refers to a fortified hill, normally thought to date from the Iron Age or late Bronze Age, in other words around 1000 years B.C. or earlier.  Such a fort would generally have been protected by ditch and bank defences, sometimes a single ditch and bank, univalleted, sometimes more than one ditch and bank was dug, multi-valleted, and distinctive entrances were created to make entry difficult for assailants.  This particular Dinas is special, despite the fact it has been totally destroyed by quarrying since the early C20th.

Dinas near Llansawel and the Deer Park wall of Edwinsford.

The gap in the wall needed urgent attention, beyond the steep slope rises to the summit of the old fort, unfortunately there is nothing beyond the skyline ridge.

The conical hill was geologically valuable and consists of hard sandstone and quartz.  It had resisted the erosive powers of millions of years of wind, rain and ice, and stood proud overlooking the valley of the river Cothi.  The Cothi flows south westwards to join the Tywi below Pont ar Cothi, it rises high in the hills above the important Roman gold mine at Dolaucothi (meaning meadows of the Cothi) and it is the presence of our Italian visitors, once again, that brings prosperity to the area.  However, the hillfort stood guard over very fertile, well watered and well hidden meadows and arable lands long before Roman legions marched into the area.  The broad mature valley of the Cothi at this point is favoured with good soil and its very own micro-climate which records an isophenal range (a measure of frost free days and the date on which Spring arrives – assessed by the budding of a number of trees and shrubs) more akin to the Gulf stream warmed coastal plains of Pembrokeshire and Cardiganshire.  Thus it was an ideal location for early farmers and a safe haven for the tribal society of pre-Roman Wales.  The area is believed to have been occupied by the Ordivices with their warring neighbours, the Silures, south of the Tywi in their own huge defended hillfort of Garngoch.  It is interesting that the two hillforts are visible to each other.

Tarmac quarry, Dinas, Llansawel

The hole in the Dinas is enormous, long long years of quarrying have removed the innards of the once proud hill -fort.

Following the subjugation of those Celtic tribes by the Legions in the first century and the 300 or so years of occupation and influence the old hillfort once again came to prominence as a focal point of the community.  The Early Medieval Welsh multiple estate of Tir Telych had its Llys, its chief court, here and the area had a structured civil government for several hundred years.

The wall is the result of a much later occupation; the great Edwinsford estate, the grand house now lies in ruins, came about after the Dissolution of the Monasteries.  The nearby Premonstratensian house of  Talley had been given the rich lands of the Cothi valley by The Lord Rhys (Rhys ap Grufydd) in about 1184-89.

Abaty Taalyllychau

Talley Abbey, the ruins are distinctive and the lakes on whose banks it sits are rich in coarse fish.

Following its final demise between 1636 and 1638, the lands were consumed into the grand estate.  The Deer park was established in the years after 1710 and the parkland trees can still be seen today.  The great wall, over 1200 metres in length, is a mixture of dry stone wall – where it is not visible from the mansion (a common-place feature of walls close to or visible from the great houses) – and lime mortared nearer to it.  Indeed not only was the wall built to keep the valuable deer in the park, it has an average height of 2.2 metres, but it also displays fanciful stonework.  Unfortunately for me the stone in that part of the wall that was built with lime mortar is  where the collapses have occurred.  I say unfortunately because the stone in that part of the wall is of a different lithography to the section which was built without it – in other words the ‘dry stone wall’ (dry stone wall refers to the method of building to prevent the ingress of rain water and not because it is built without mortar).  Instead of regular flat faced sandstone the lime mortar section is built with smaller irregularly shaped stones, not at all suitable for the job I have to do.

Deer Park wall on the Edwinsford estate.

Hundreds of small stones, a heap of trouble, especially as to rebuild it using dry stone techniques is now required...

Back in 1995 it was decided that over a period of 8 years the wall was to be repaired with grant aid (to the farmer) included in the all farm agri-environment scheme, Tir Cymen.  The original farmer called me in and I assessed the work, it was daunting.  It was clear from the start what had caused individual sections to collapse whilst the rest stayed as sound as the day it had been completed.  Once the estate fell into disrepair in the 1920s, the conical hill around which the wall is built and on top of which the ancient hilltop fortress and later Llys had stood, was sold for its mineral rights.  Good stone was available and for the next 80 years the inside of the hill was removed, like a rotten tooth, with just the outside remaining.  To get the stone explosive blasting, on a near daily basis, was used and after each blast large stones were seen to be rolling and bouncing down the slopes of the hill.  The descent of these large boulders was only halted by the wall.  At each place of collapse a large boulder was in-situ on the upper side.  Newton’s Cradle came to the fore, the impact of the boulder on the up-side resulted in the lower face exploding outwards and the section collapsed.  I was reminded of the Dams raid and Barnes Wallis’ bouncing bomb.  The farm which lies in the valley, some half mile from the wall, often had boulders crashing into the roof of the farm buildings.  Imagine the claim they could have made today !!

Collapsed section of large wall

Each collapse is the result of a large boulder smashing into the wall on the up-side.

I worked my way along the wall for 8 years doing around 120 metres of length each year.  By the time I had got to the end of the allotted period over a hundred metres still remained to be rebuilt.  The farm scheme had contributed much of the cost of the wall,  I did not increase my price over that period, thus the tax payer (through the grant), the farmer and myself contributed to the rebuilding of this most important of Welsh walls.  It is so visible from the main road that runs through this beautiful valley and the unfinished section is right next to the road – a factor of the way I started the repairs.  I asked the quarry owners – Tarmac PLC – to fund the final repair as it was the action of quarrying that had destroyed the wall and given the fact that thousands of tons of stone had been taken from this ancient site bringing vast sums to the company.  Indeed the cost of the final section being rebuilt would have been a few years rent which they currently receive from the very farm that had been bombarded.  I got paid far more for repairing fences at a nearby quarry which they also own.  It would have been a good act of reconciliation, good publicity, good investment in the heritage of Wales.  Each ‘manager’ I approached failed to respond, I doubt they even ever bothered asking further up the chain.  It is such a shame, this historic piece of landscape needs completing.

Repaired wall at Edwinsford

A repaired section of the great Deer Park wall of the Edwinsford estate.

The collapses I have to now rebuild have occurred in sections that seemed sound when I undertook the restoration, now over 5 years ago.  One of the problems of part restoration is that inevitably pieces that look sound at that stage will continue to tumble and fall, especially when they have been impacted by large boulders.  It is certainly the case in two of the current collapses, that is that they looked damaged when I surveyed the wall – and photographed the length of it.  The decision on what sections got rebuilt, and hence how much grant was to be allocated, was not mine to make, indeed such an assessment had already been undertaken before I was contacted.  I knew immediately that insufficient square metres – the way the grant is assessed – had been included per annum;  it is not sufficient to merely measure the length of wall collapsed when surveyed, inevitably as the collapse is stripped-out extensions each side need to be made to get back to good sound structure.  Also there were sections which had been overlooked as they appeared to be standing in good condition but were in fact in need of taking down and rebuilding.  Thus it came to be, by the end of year 8 there remained much to be rebuilt.

Collapsed section of wall on the Edwinsford estate

Another day, another hole in the wall; this is a big one.... and a big problem for me, I have no lime mortar.

Now normally ‘gapping’ (as it is called in the trade) is a fairly easy job; the collapsed stone needs to be cleared away and sorted, making sure that specific stones, such as through-stones or cover-bands and cope stones, are put safely to one side so as not to use them in the general build – that is especially important on this wall because of the immaculately dressed cover bands and copes which are mathematical to the ‘nth’.  However on this wall there are some other issues which make it a tad more difficult than the norm.  For one thing the wall is over 2 metres high in some spots, like the next collapse I have to repair.  Also, the general height, over 1.8 metres in most places, means it is not a wall to ‘hop’ over, thus once I have built up to my chest height I need to use a small ladder to get to the other side, there being no nearby gap to climb through.  Once that height gets even higher I end up having to walk to wherever I can get through or across – in this case several hundred metres away.  It is important to keep an access point, either by building the gap on only three quarters of the length enabling a small pass to be maintained as long as possible, or keep a gap nearby.  Of course while I was doing the 8 year restoration there was always a close-by gap to allow me to cross to the other side, not now however.  It is possible to build ‘over hand’, that is build the face on the other side to where you are standing from that side, not to be recommended, although it can be done but it needs a higher degree of skill (or less fuss about how the finished article will look).

What a wall looks like on the inside.

The inside of the wall, and therein lies the problem; you see how the stones do not penetrate very far into the wall, they should reach at least a third of the way in, the small stones are 'glued' together with the lime mortar but to rebuild dry becomes almost impossible, strength and stability cannot be achieved without 'deep penetration' (of the stones !) But then you all know that don't you !

Each of the major gaps consists of about 8 – 10 square metres, each is taking at least two days, each is making me very tired…

It is however a great place to work, steeped in history and very good for wildlife.  The quarry has been largely taken back by nature and scrub woodland provides excellent habitats for all manner of birds.  Red Kite abound and Peregrine falcons scream overhead.  This small part of Wales is not widely known about and apart from the nearby Roman goldmines at Dolaucothi, most people drive through on the way to Lampeter or Llandeilo, never seeing the great ruin of Edwinsford or noticing the hilltop on which so much history dwells.

I have worked this place in all seasons; snow covered it is quite stunning, in hot summer sunshine it glistens as the white quartz seams catch the rays.  Autumn fills the oak woods that surround the hill with wonderful rusty tints but there is a down side at this time of year, and boy did we catch it this week.  Even then however there were compensations, skies like you’ve never seen, enhanced by bright low sun striking the near ground while black clouds and mist shroud the skyline, spooky or what !

On one morning the sun one moment was almost too hot, the next the sky caused earth bound creatures to scoot for cover, even the birds hid and the sheep headed to cower beneath the wall.

A sky threatening havoc

This was the view out of the windscreen, should I have turned back.....

Scary sky

It was almost hypnotic, what lay ahead I wondered - the answer was a two hour sit in the car while all hell dumped on us !

Within a short while the sky would clear and normal service was resumed.  To provide a little shelter should we get caught, I bought a new poly-propylene sheet to make a bivouac off the wall.  It appears that the blue cover reminded the sheep of feed bags that the farmer carried their sugar-beet in, my little helper found himself the centre of attention for most of the morning.

Sheep staring at paper reading boy

'Behind you!!' , page 3 was obviously quite interesting that morning.... or are they watching how I do it so's they can knock it down again !

Fortunately I have a ‘reserve’ site which is proving very handy, just on my doorstep.  I mentioned working back at the Laird’s house, in fact I will be there quite a few days this winter, the work seems endless.  The first job has been the old pig sty and I began by ascertaining the cause of the main problem, which appeared to be the supporting outside wall was leaning and soon to fall.  I, and everyone else for that matter, assumed the wall was only being held up by the roof, not so in fact.  I am continually amazed and dismayed at the shabby workmanship that has been done on this estate.  It is true that sometimes it has been at the behest of the old Laird, presumably in an attempt to reduce costs but in many cases work has been badly undertaken and the Laird has been cheated and conned by several tradesmen over the years.  In the case of the old pig sty a new roof had been put onto it some 20 or so years ago, new rafters and battens were fixed to old main frames and the whole was re-slated.  For reasons that are now impossible to understand (save it was a cheap quick-fix) the newer half of the roof was not fixed to the wall against which it leaned.  Thus, over the years, the roof has gradually pulled away from the wall and because it was (sort of) fixed to the outside, wall that has been pushed until parts of it began to fall.

Old pig sty wall

The outer wall is already beginning to fall as it is leaning too far, and I foolishly thought it was a badly built wall...

I lifted the roof a few inches until I was sure the wall, if it fell, would not drag the whole thing down. I rigged timber framing inside the building which was fixed to the back wall and the roof, thereby arresting the slippage. The end wall was hardly standing and the timber lintel above the door was rotten.  I took it down stone by stone and supported the timber roof purlins until such time as I rebuild the wall and renew the lintel.

Before that I had to strip out and rebuild the dry stone wall which retained the driveway.  This wall was built with the slate from the Laird’s own quarry which I have featured before (as garden walls and steps).  The other task that needed urgent attention was to dig out the half a metre of mud and debris that had accrued in the yard of the pigsty over many years.  I guessed that the yard would have a proper stone or brick floor and so it proved.  The blue stable sets cover the whole area and deserve to be seen again.

Retaining wall around an old pigsty

The rebuilt dry stone wall which was about to collapse, the hole hides an old drainage pipe that seems to be blocked but will hopefully be cleared as it is supposed to take away rain water from the cottage opposite. The black pipe takes away rain water from a gulley across the drive. I will position it once everything else is completed.

So, a busy time, walls need to be rebuilt, more complicated tasks too are awaiting attention, the pigsty needs to be done before the winter really sets in.   October has itself blown away on the gales that have battered us, soon the dark nights and coldness of November will reduce the working days and the working evenings.  Whereas now I manage to get a few hours in the workshop in the evening, soon I will be cwtched in a warm room with a hoard of books and academic demands to meet.

I am engaged in some more historic landscape study and have a number of places to visit which I will share with you.  My collection needs more attention but before that I need to get another lean-to shed built to accommodate a tractor and a couple of carts.  That requires some hard hole digging in fairly rocky ground, and a weekend free of other activity.  For now I am dodging rain and wind, jumping from site to site to get the jobs finished (and get some income !) and already planning happy holidays for 2012 !  And no,  it won’t, unfortunately include an Olympic games……. who DID get any tickets !  I’m going north, definitely, and west, hopefully.  Ah well, less than 60 shopping days to Christmas – but then shops are open every day now so that’s easy to work out.  I’m already eating too many mince pies, and I’m already trying to think of pressies for people…….  Welshwaller has a headache !

Mystery photo

I have little surprises all the time, look at this, what do you think ?


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